The Begin Precedent
Twenty-five years ago this week, the prime minister of Israel faced a wide-ranging dilemma. Menachem Begin was presented with evidence that an Iraqi nuclear reactor that might produce a weapon of mass destruction would soon be operational.
He could have continued pursuing apparently fruitless diplomacy or waited in vain for a major power to act. Or he could have decided that Israel had to act on its own, then prepared himself to brave the inevitable storm of condemnation that would follow.
Begin chose the latter course; and following the audacious and successful Israel Air Force strike on the Osirak reactor, the result was a predictable wave of international anger directed at the Jewish state for acting unilaterally. In the years that followed, the same American government that punished Israel for the raid would formally thank it for ensuring that American troops in the Gulf War would not have to face a nuclear attack.
Begin's decisiveness in the face of a nuclear dagger pointed at the throats of the Jewish people puts into context the current dilemma faced by both the United States and Israel over the possibility that Iran will have a nuclear weapon by the end of the decade.
In truth, the differences between the two situations outweigh the similarities. This time, a small surgical strike is unlikely to work. Iran's European business partners also seem to take the threat a bit more seriously than did Saddam Hussein's French patrons. Indeed, diplomacy and outright bribery may be our best chance to put a brake on the Iranian bomb.
We can only hope that military action against the Iranian bomb will prove unnecessary and that peaceful efforts to neuter the nuclear threat still hanging over Israel will succeed. But given the odds stacked against this hope and the stated desire of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to annihilate Israel, we cannot help but remember Begin's unwillingness to allow another madman the power to vaporize the people of Israel.
Should the situation ever come to a point where diplomacy will have failed again, and the leaders of Israel and the United States are faced with a similar choice, we hope they will remember not just the costs of action but the benefits of Begin's courage.
One hundred years ago, the idea of an aware, active and self-confident American Jewish community prepared to work to advance the interests of the Jews, as well as those causes which reflected Jewish values, was an alien concept. At that time, and for a considerable period after, most Jews here lacked the self-confidence and the wherewithal to fight for their rights.
The small group of men who founded the American Jewish Committee were the exception to the rule. Their willingness to openly advocate for Jewish causes, and to do so in an effective manner, marked a milestone in American Jewish history.
AJCommittee has changed from a small group of elitists who were uncomfortable with Zionism into a broad-based, pro-Israel membership organization. It has achieved a great deal in its 100 years and has been joined in the fight by other groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress.
But AJCommittee's 100th birthday deserves a salute from the entire community, not just for what it has done but for what the commemoration symbolizes.
We can never go back to being the scared Jews who were afraid of speaking up. The process by which we became an activist community started, in no small measure, with the creation of AJCommittee. For that the organization has our gratitude and best wishes on its centennial.